Can Trees Teach us About Relationships? (Yes.)
I LOVE hiking. And nature, and being outside. I just, love it! It’s where I find peace, calm, inspiration, restoration, and it’s definitely where I reconnect with myself and God. When my clients and I talk about self-care, I’ll usually mention hiking as one of my main self-care tools to give some examples of what self-care can look like.
So when I found the book, “The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben, I was like, (insert all the giddy, excited emojis and gifs).
Now, a note about my relationship with books. I have about 18 book by my bedside that I’m reading all at once, little snipits/chapters here and there. I’m not sure what that means, but I won’t analyze that. Today.
So one night as my husband and I settled in for bedtime, I picked up this book for the first time. I was so excited to start reading. I LOVE trees! Always have. From climbing trees constantly as a kid growing up in rural TN, to finding such rich symbolism in them as I’ve walked through my own healing journey, as well as with my clients through theirs; I love them. I opened the book and read the forward. And then promptly put the book down because I had started crying. Like, big tear crying.
I cried for a minute, and then started to chuckle. As I wiped my tear-soaked eyes and cheeks, I glanced over at my very-asleep husband, obviously totally oblivious that his wife was crying because trees sometimes feel sad and lonely.
That imagery still makes me giggle.
Now, the reason for the crying. Even just the short bit I read of this book overwhelmed me with information about trees – actually, forests – and how similar we are to them. The author has spent over 20 years studying and carefully observing forest patterns. Apparently, trees, quite literally, live in community with each other. They are extremely social. They “smell” and “taste.” They care for each other and pass nutrients on to one another, even to the point of feeding tree stumps that have been cut down so as to keep them alive (that’s when the tears started flowing). They communicate and fend off threats. They need each other in order to create a sustaining environment. They live in family groups. And when trees live in isolation, they don’t live as long or as well. When trees aren’t in community – especially when commercially farmed – they lose the ability to communicate, to be in relationship; they even become “deaf and dumb” (that’s when I had to put the book down).
All I could think was, well first, how much I want to hug and take home every tree that’s ever felt lonely and isolated. I’ll plant them all in my back yard and I’ll name them and love them.
THEN, all I could think about was how similar we as humans are to trees. Like trees in a forest community, we need each other, desperately. Our most basic biological design is to be in community. And like trees, we suffer when we’re without it. We become anxious, depressed, and our overall health suffers.
We’re not designed to be isolated.
Among many unfortunate – and untrue – messages our Western society tells us is that we should need people less than we do. We’re told that we should be independent. That while relationships are good, what we really need is to be able to meet our own needs in the end.
Now, I hope I didn’t lose you just then. Independence is a great thing; we’re just sent the wrong message on how we attain it. We become our most independent, thriving, creative, innovative, passionate selves when we are firmly rooted in safe, secure relationships. Research abounds on this. Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, tells us that we flourish in healthy independence when we are effectively dependent on others.
Quite a different idea, isn’t it?
Of course, there is also ineffective dependence on others. This is where we see unhealthy relationship patterns, from obsessiveness, disconnection, all the way to the extremes of abuse.
Basically, we absolutely flourish when we’re deeply connected in relationship. We are our brightest, most authentic, fulfilled selves. When we’re securely connected in relationship, our most basic human needs of being deeply seen, heard, and understood are met.
And from there, the sky’s the limit for us.